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This Week in Poverty: The Unfinished March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: The Unfinished March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom


Representative John Lewis speaks at a rally for immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

“[African-Americans] must march from the rat-infested, overcrowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities…. They must march from the play areas in crowded and unsafe streets to the newly opened areas in the parks and recreational centers,” said Whitney Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League.

When I read those words this week, I thought it sounded like a good recommendation for residents of my hometown, Washington, DC, which has in essence been two separate and unequal cities since my great grandparents came here in the 1920s—and it remains so today.

But Young said this at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, exactly fifty years ago on August 28. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute, “The Unfinished March—An Overview,” offers a compelling look at the economic vision that was laid out on that day and has since been forgotten. It also examines the continuing struggle to achieve that vision.

Most Americans associate the March with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech and celebrate the victories of the civil rights movement that followed. But report author Algernon Austin, director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy (PREE), writes that there were “nine other speeches that day” and that the march organizers called for “decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13.00 an hour in today’s dollars.”

Where do we stand today in meeting those goals?

There are still ghettos of poverty that lack decent housing—where poor minority children don’t have the same access to resource-rich, middle-class communities as poor white children do. Nearly half of poor African-American children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, defined as areas where 30 percent of the census tract population lives below the federal poverty threshold (on less than $18,000 for a family of three). In contrast, only 12 percent of poor white children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. (Thirty-nine percent of poor American Indian children live in areas of concentrated poverty, as do 35 percent of poor Hispanic children and 21 percent of poor Asian and Pacific Islander children.)

Austin describes how concentrated poverty is correlated “with a host of social and economic challenges,” including: higher crime rates, higher exposure to lead, higher prevalence of alcohol and fast food outlets and fewer opportunities to be physically active due to crime and limited green space. All of these factors make the struggle to rise from poverty significantly harder.

Relatedly, Austin points to the call by speakers at the March “for black children to gain access to adequate and integrated education.”

“[We] must march from the congested ill-equipped schools, which breed dropouts, and which smother motivation, to the well-equipped integrated facilities throughout the cities,” argued Young at the March.

But today we have public schools that are essentially separate and unequal. 74 percent of African-Americans still attend majority nonwhite schools, compared to just over 76 percent in the late 1960s. That number had dropped down to 63 percent by the early 1980s, but Austin suggests that progress reversed due to a “lack of commitment by the federal government and multiple decisions by the Supreme Court.” The share of black children in schools that are 90 to 100 percent nonwhite has also stagnated at around 38 percent since the early 2000s.

Why are these numbers so significant?

“Now as a half century ago—segregated schools are unequal schools,” writes Austin. A 10 percent increase in a school’s nonwhite students is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending. Furthermore, “the average school with 90 percent or more non-white students has $443,000 less to spend on students during the school year.” (Italics added.)

With this kind of stark difference in educational opportunities and resources, it’s hardly a surprise that—absent a full employment program that the March speakers called for—we have seen the black unemployment rate remain two to two and a half times higher than the white unemployment rate from 1963 to 2012.

“Indeed, black America is nearly always facing an employment situation that would be labeled a particularly severe recession if it characterized the entire labor force,” notes Austin.

When the economy was booming in 2000, and the white unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, the black unemployment rate was still a recession-like 7.6 percent. In the aftermath of the recent Great Recession, when white unemployment peaked at 8 percent, black unemployment stood at a Depression-like 15.9 percent. (The average national unemployment rate from 1929 to 1939 was 13.1 percent.)

“If we can have full employment and full production for the negative ends of war then why can’t we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace?” asked Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America, speaking at the March in 1963.

Austin asserts that unless we commit to a full employment policy that brings down the minority unemployment rates, “it will be impossible for blacks to have low poverty rates.” Indeed in 2011, the back poverty rate was 27.6 percent—nearly three times the white poverty rate of 9.8 percent that year, according to the most recent US Census Bureau figures.

For African-Americans who do find work, a disproportionate number are paid low wages. In 2006, 36 percent didn’t earn hourly wages sufficient to lift a family of four out of poverty (above approximately $23,000 annually); the same holds true for more than 43 percent of Hispanics, and nearly 25 percent of whites. In 2011, a worker needed to earn $11.06 an hour to lift a family of four out of poverty.

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here—for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all,” said John Lewis in 1963, then the national chairman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and now a US Congressman.

The marchers wanted the minimum wage to be lifted from $1.15 to $2 an hour—the equivalent of more than $13 an hour today. But it now stands at $7.25, and its inflation-adjusted value is about $2 less than it was in 1968. (The tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991.) If it had kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.59 today—$18.72 if it had kept pace with productivity gains. But Congress has raised the minimum wage just three times in the past thirty years.

“Because too many Americans’ expectations about what the US economy can deliver to them have been battered in recent decades, many would see this [$13] minimum-wage demand as unrealistically high,” writes Austin. “But [it] is still lower than what the minimum wage would be if it had merely risen in step with gains in economy-wide productivity—a reasonable benchmark for wage increases.”

In these times, when so many dismiss institutional discrimination against people of color by simply pointing to President Obama and saying, “End of discussion,” Austin has done a real service with his examination of the data that reveals the unfinished—and widely forgotten—business of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

But what also excites me about the Unfinished March project are EPI’s plans for next steps. I spoke with Christian Dorsey, EPI’s director of external and governmental affairs, who has a strong background in community organizing for children’s literacy, prejudice reduction and affordable housing.

Dorsey said that a symposium in August will explore “history, current policy options, and our prospects for actually achieving what needs to be done,” including through nonviolent, direct action.

“That’s one of the great successes we can learn from the civil rights movement,” said Dorsey. “Nonviolent active resistance forced people to confront these issues very visibly, demonstrably, and not necessarily always politely. It forced people who would otherwise want to pretend these issues don’t exist to acknowledge what’s going on.”

Dorsey said that EPI will offer more resources and opportunities in the fall to inspire and support this kind of action. Stay tuned and get involved—help finish the March.

Moyers & Company: The Faces of America’s Hungry

On the next Moyers & Company, I’m honored to join Bill Moyers along with Kristi Jacobson, director and producer of A Place at the Table, and Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, to discuss food insecurity in America and the recent Farm Bill. It will air starting today and throughout next week—check your local listings. Here’s a preview:

PBS’s Frontline: A Voice for Workers

Frontline looks at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’s Fair Food Program and its transformational impact on the lives of women in the fields.

Watch A Voice for Workers on PBS. See more from Frontline.

Get involved

Tell President Obama: Homecare workers deserve basic rights
Chase: Stop the Eviction of Sergio and Jonathan Ceballos
Rally4Babies with ZERO TO THREE

Clips and other resources (compiled with Samantha Lachman)

What the Supreme Court Doesn’t Understand About the Voting Rights Act,” Ari Berman

Return of Jim Crow,” Ari Berman

Lessons of the Great Recession: How the Safety Net Performed,” Jared Bernstein

Stephen Colbert Interviews Bill Moyers,” BillMoyers.com Staff

Education Law Prof Blog,” Derek Black (via PRRAC)

School dismissed for a beloved security guard,” Steve Bogira

New York Now Largest City With Paid Sick Days,” Bryce Covert

The solution to US public schools is not corporate America,” Daniel Denvir

Dispatch From Academia: Equity in the Archives,” Eve Dunbar (via the Roosevelt Institute)

Soon We Will Visit the Museum to See Poverty,” Marian Wright Edelman

Average pay of restaurant CEOs was 788 times higher than minimum wage workers’ pay in 2012,” Ross Eisenbrey

Transforming States’ Health and Human Services Programs While Implementing the ACA,” Anthony Eleftherion

Gail Smith, Legal Advocate, Receives White House Honor,” Equal Voice

The Nuns on the Bus Hit the Road for Immigration Reform,” Lauren Feeney

The Struggle for Voting Rights Continues,” Melissa Harris-Perry

Child Poverty Still on the Rise—Early Childhood Investments Can Help!” Christine Johnson-Staub and Stephanie Schmitt

What the DOMA Ruling Means for LGBT Families of Color,” Imara Jones

South remains the epicenter of US child poverty crisis,” Institute for Southern Studies.

The Class-Based Future of Affirmative Action,” Richard Kahlenberg (via the Roosevelt Institute)

You Can Have Your Own Community Radio Station—Here’s Where to Start,” Jamilah King

Who Frets Most About Student Debt,” Annie Lowrey (via Roosevelt Institute)

Poverty, race and place: Map your metro,” Graham MacDonald and Margery Turner (via PRRAC)

Working Poor Losing Obamacare as States Resist Medicaid,” David Mildenberg and Alex Wayne

Supreme Court Guts Voting Rights Act,” Brentin Mock      

SCOTUS Voting Rights Act Decision Means We Need ‘Right to Vote’ Amendment,” John Nichols

’Distrust is really yet another form of inequality.’ When poor moms don’t trust anybody,” Barbara Raab

Where You Live Matters: Addressing Concentrated Poverty Neighborhoods,” Spotlight on Poverty [AUDIO]

Health care, education key to combating rising poverty rates among children, say experts,” Nina Terrero

Kids Count?” P.L. Thomas

Kids [Still Don’t] Count,” P.L. Thomas

Progress for Kids Made—More Needed,” Linda Tilly (via Equal Voice)

Studies/Briefs (summaries written by Samantha Lachman)

Data Book: State Trends in Child Well-Being,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
This report provides information and highlights data trends concerning the conditions of America’s children and families, by ranking states and using indicators such as economic well-being, education, health and family. The foundation found that the child poverty rate stood at 23 percent (16.4 million children) in 2011. However, both the teen birth rate and the rate of high school students not graduating in four years, as well as the child and teen death rate, have all declined. The report also focuses on early childhood, showing that the lingering effects of the recession and continued high unemployment have disproportionately affected the country’s youngest children—for instance, 54 percent of the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in preschool.

The Adolescent Diversion Program,” Center for Court Innovation.
New York is one of only two states in the country that treats 16- and 17-year-old defendants like criminally responsible adults—nearly 50,000 of these teenagers are annually prosecuted in the state’s adult criminal justice system. This report evaluates the Adolescent Diversion Program that aims to foster a more developmentally appropriate approach to the age group, by enabling some to avoid formal prosecution, and linking them to services. The program also established special courts and encouraged rehabilitative approaches. Participants in the program were less likely than comparison cases to be re-arrested on felony charges. Consistent with other research, high-risk young people fared better in the program than low-risk youth.

2013 Report on Child Care in Cook County,” Illinois Action for Children.
This report examines childcare trends, and in particular, the high cost and difficulty finding care, in the Chicago area. Approximately 900,000 children under the age of 13 live in Cook County, and a large proportion (if not a majority) receive care from someone other than their parents or guardians. The report shows how geographic differences can affect parents’ success in finding care, and also found that most types of care in the region has risen faster than inflation, as family incomes decline.

A Theory of Poverty Destabilization: Why Low-income Families Become Homeless in New York City,” Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness.
The rate of families with children entering homeless shelters in New York City rose 17 percent from 2008 to 2011. The first report in this series uses data on the demographics of the city and focuses on neighborhoods to examine the destabilizing factors affecting at-risk families, in an effort to better understand the relationship between stable poverty and rising homelessness.

State of the Nation’s Housing 2013,” Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.
Though a national housing recovery is underway, millions of homeowners are still struggling to pay their mortgages or are in debt, and housing cost burdens are reaching record levels. The national home ownership rate fell in 2012 (for the eighth straight year), and to compound such challenges, sequestration will reduce the number of households receiving rental housing assistance. This report further addresses the need for more affordable housing nationwide. The number of Americans spending half or more of their incomes on housing is at an all-time high, with 20.6 million households shouldering such a burden.

2013–2014 American Human Development Index,” Measure of America.
This report uses alternative data points to “tell the story of how people—not just the economy—are doing.” It analyzes well-being in three areas—health, education and earnings—to understand how Americans invest in their families and live to their full potential. It ranks the states, large metropolitan areas and racial/ethnic groups within those areas. Among their most interesting findings were changes over time—for instance, Michigan saw the greatest decline in human development over the past decade, and African-Americans saw the greatest increase in life expectancy (as compared to other racial/ethnic groups).

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent. (US Census Bureau 2012)

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 23 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

African-American poverty rate: 27.6 percent.

White poverty rate: 9.8 percent.

Ratio of black unemployment to white unemployment, 1963-2012: 2 to 2.5 times higher, nearly every year.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Hourly wage needed to lift a family of four above poverty line, 2011: $11.06.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25 ($2.13 for tipped workers)

Federal minimum wage if indexed to inflation since 1968: $10.59.

Federal minimum wage if it kept pace with productivity gains: $18.72.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996 (pre-welfare reform): sixty-eight for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: twenty-seven for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.      

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.

Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.

Percentage of US population that is African-American: 13 percent.

Percentage of homeless shelter population that is African-American: nearly 40 percent.

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Quotes of the week

“When that decision came down yesterday you know who I was thinking of? John Lewis, who was beaten almost to death in 1961 on the Freedom Rides—who was almost beaten to death on the Pettus Bridge between Selma and Montgomery when they were fighting for voting rights. I thought of all of those now forgotten martyrs—young black men and women—who died fighting for voting rights. I thought of Bernard Lafayette who was beaten two or three times. I thought of all of those guys who stood up so that everyone in this country irrespective of race, religion, creed, income—were all equal in that voting booth. I thought of them. And it was a betrayal of their martyrdom that this court said, ‘It’s gonna be okay for you to go back and try to put discriminatory laws against voting in different places’.”
   —Bill Moyers, on Supreme Court ruling against Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act

“Indeed, black America is nearly always facing an employment situation that would be labeled a particularly severe recession if it characterized the entire labor force.”
   —Algernon Austin, The Unfinished March—An Overview

Samantha Lachman wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company and AlterNet. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

While the goals set out at the March on Washington have yet to be completed, major victories for the LGBT movement this week now have experts pondering what the movement’s next steps should be.

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